Chance the Rapper's Festival Co-Producer on Creating a 'Small Ninja Team [for] When Artists Have Crazy Ideas'
When Mike Luba decided in 1994 to forgo law school for a job booking fraternity shows at Cellar Door Concerts in Virginia Beach, Va., he set out on a career that would link him with some of the most influential names in live music, including former Rolling Stones promoter Michael Cohl, Red Light Management founder Coran Capshaw and Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino. Today, as one of five original partners in multifaceted producer-promoter Madison House Presents -- and with a resume that ranges from The Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well dates and Yo Gabba Gabba Live to Chance the Rapper’s Magnificent Coloring Day festival on Sept. 24 and the revival of Forest Hills Stadium in Queens as a concert venue -- Luba can take his place in their ranks.
Born and raised on Long Island, Luba, 46, booked music for Emory University in Atlanta as a student. Following his two-year stint at Cellar Door, Luba moved to Athens, Ga., to launch Madison House, later relocating it near flagship client String Cheese Incident in Boulder, Colo. (He now lives in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan with his wife, fashion executive Lalena, and their two young children.) In 2007 he joined forces with Cohl, first at Live Nation and then at S2BN, before rejoining Madison House Presents in 2010.
Today, the operation has about 30 employees in Boulder, Chicago and New York, and separated from the parent company after it was acquired by AEG Live in 2014. But Luba continues to manage String Cheese Incident with the original Madison House team -- Jesse Aratow, Jeremy Stein, Nadia Prescher and Kevin Morris -- which is a major point of pride for him. “I’m most proud of the fact the six guys in the band and the five managers have managed to stick together for almost 20 years now,” he says.
How did Chance the Rapper’s festival come about?
We have huge faith in Chance and his team -- we think he’s the future of music in a lot of ways. He has an association with the [Chicago] White Sox [Chance is essentially the team’s “artist ambassador”] and somehow he and his manager Pat Corcoran got it in their heads to take a whack at bringing a show to the Comiskey Park [now U.S. Cellular Field] baseball stadium, where there hasn’t been a show in 15 years. His last hard-ticket shows here were at the [2,300-capacity] Riviera Theatre, and most people were like, “You sold out two theaters last time and now we’re talking about 45,000 tickets?!” But Pat said, “Chance and I are willing to put our money where our mouths are,” and we said, “We’ll deliver you the best production team on the planet and together we’ll take as big a swing as we can and see what happens.” Sure enough, it broke the attendance record for any event at the stadium, and probably could have done a double.
Could other artists pull off something like this?
A lot of things happened at the exact right time. [Agent] Cara Lewis booked a really smart tour right before it, where everything blew out and they left Chicago as a TBA, so it supercharged expectations. It’s very rare when you find an artist and team truly willing to bet on themselves and put money up, and they totally did it. We asked them to deliver a bunch of stuff in order for us to jump off the deep end, and they did it. I’m really proud of them.
What was your vision in launching Madison House?
We started it as a boutique booking agency, and then one day one of our clients handed me a cassette of a band at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival playing a bluegrass version of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” You could hear 10,000 people gasping in horror, so I was like, “Who the f--- are those guys?” It turned out to be String Cheese Incident, and they became our first management client.
SCI sued Ticketmaster in 2003. What was at the core of the conflict?
We had hit a level where we were going to 5,000- to 6,000-seaters and and we could no longer fudge it by playing giant hotel ballrooms or fields in strange towns. We just couldn’t figure out a viable way to tour without having to play Ticketmaster rooms. Our issue wasn’t necessarily the service they provided or what they stood for, because they did a great job. But we would try to keep our ticket prices at around $20, and by the time the service charges and everything was added on they were $32. Plus, we couldn’t get any of the data for our fans, which was a critical thing for us. So we went through this whole thing and basically at the end they said, “OK, we’re going to give you everything you want, so if you continue this lawsuit you’re doing it as a publicity stunt and you’re disingenuous dicks.” So we settled.
How did you end up working with Michael Cohl?
One day out of the blue I got a cold call from him and [Pink Floyd/Alice Cooper producer] Bob Ezrin. Michael said, “We’ve been watching your company. I’m about to take over as chairman of Live Nation. I have a ton of money and we’re going to change the world. Move to Florida!” I said, “Sounds good.” That lasted a year, but in that year we built Roc Nation, signed Madonna. That’s where I met Zac Brown, U2 and Shakira.
Then Cohl left Live Nation in 2008.
Michael left, and people were given a choice to stay at Live Nation or go with him -- most of us went with Michael, and we started S2BN. We were kinda x’d out of being in the music business at that point, because Michael had a real serious non-compete. We had to find all sorts of non-music stuff to do, which is how he got sucked into Spider-Man [on Broadway], I ended up doing the Yo Gabba Gabba thing. Without a lot of gory details, Michael and Irving [Azoff, then Live Nation Chairman] were suing each other at some point over some dumb shit, they were both trying to get the Stones when they were going back on tour. Michael ended up re-upping his non-compete, at which point I said, “Hey, boss, it’s been an incredible education and a great run but I’ve got to go do something else.”
Reviving the 93-year-old Forest Hills Stadium as a 13,600-capacity concert venue was a monumental project. How’s it going?
The first year  we did one show, Mumford & Sons, the next year we did five shows, the second year we did nine, this year we’re up to 14 -- and they’re dream shows for us. Paul Simon -- who went to Forest Hills High School -- came back for the first time in 46 years; he had played there with Art Garfunkel, and The Doors opened for them. The next weekend we had Bob Dylan; he hadn’t played there in 51 years. It’s where Arthur Ashe became the first African-American to win a pro sporting event; The Rolling Stones played there [depicted in a scene from Mad Men]; The Beatles landed a helicopter on the grass court; Alfred Hitchcock filmed [scenes from the 1951 movie] Strangers on a Train there -- we still have the chair he used. It’s a really weird, special place -- the fans feel it and the bands feel it.
How did you become involved with The Grateful Dead’s $52 million-grossing Fare Thee Well shows?
Co-producer Pete Shapiro and I have been friends for years: At The Dead’s 40th anniversary we were scheming about what to do on the 50th. We zeroed in on Chicago, and I said, “My partner Don Sullivan produced the last Dead show at Soldier Field [in 1995]. He’s the biggest Deadhead on the planet, and there’s no one better in the world to produce the show.” That sort of unified us, and I went to [AEG Live CEO] Jay [Marciano] and said, “There’s a real shot this could happen. I may need a really big check really soon.” He told me he called around and got a 50-50 response: The bean counters thought it would be a disaster and the music guys thought it was a no-brainer home run and would mortgage their houses on it. He said, “I’m going with the music guys -- tell me where to send the money.”
Are projects like that and Chance’s festival the kinds of things you would like to do going forward?
Yeah. Our dream was to be a small, nimble, ninja team that when artists have crazy ideas that most people can’t figure out how to do, or that common sense would say, “Don’t do it,” we’ll try to figure out how to make it all happen. We like to enable the crazy dreams of artists.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Sept. 17 issue of Billboard.
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